If we are to take its title as an indication of intention, John Krokidas’ new film Kill Your Darlings is a resounding success. With great alacrity, the film succeeds in eviscerating anything about its subjects that might make for attractive screen stuff, and in its place delivers a glossy, unconvincing argument that the best minds of another generation were actually well-fed, sane and dressed to the nines.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Allen Ginsberg, a mythical creature apparently brought to life by the twin forces of utter insanity and formal rigor. Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross as Ginsberg’s parents oppositely undermine the film’s illusory neatness and biopic convenience by being awesomely brilliant and heinously awful, respectively. Leigh’s bold decision to actually appear, in fact, to be alive clues us into the movie that someone, somewhere should have been trying to make with this material. Instead we get moments like the jokey conversation about assonance and meter between Allen and his father, which seamlessly transitions into the proto-poet learning of his Columbia acceptance. For a moment it seems that the expected, remarkably bland pacing and visual texture might be part of a thoughtful choice to contrast Ginsberg’s early life with what he is about to experience in New York. This is not what happens. Things fall apart. Which is to say, they don’t.
Never have I felt the commercialization of American independent cinema and its pernicious reliance on quirked up Hollywood convention more obviously destroying the potential of a central conceit than I did while watching Kill Your Darlings. It has about as much formal ingenuity as The Help and Ray with none of the fun or feeling of either. This should be a more literary, less poppy version of Todd Haynes’ multifaceted and fragmented Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There, shouldn’t it? After all, Haynes’ subject is a successful song and dance man, closer to Elvis than the nonconformist, truly radical men of letters of Kill Your Darlings. But this is of no significance to Krokidas, who earnestly proceeds with one plodding beat after another. Ginsberg arrives at Columbia and shortly meets Lucien Carr, a very weak Dane DeHaan. Carr is an inspiring figure, one with big ideas; he’s the kind of guy who jumps on library tables and quotes Henry Miller. I can only be sure of this because, in his first scene, he shares a big idea, then jumps on a table and quotes Henry Miller. Character establishment. Check. And the movie never for a moment abandons this habit of screenwriting a la Trader Joe’s shopper.
Soon comes the introduction of William Burroughs, a shockingly forgettable Ben Foster, and Jack Kerouac, Jack Huston delivering a performance that wouldn’t be out of place in Beats!: The Musical. There might be something to the idea that the nascent stages of this movement merely consisted of a lot of kids playing dress-up, but the lightweights on show in Kill Your Darlings are completely devoid of promise. They are mouthpieces for concepts that feel tired; today’s undergrad bullshit is meaninglessly paraded across the screen, left flaccid by the film’s boring, uninspired syntax. The screenplay trades in innovation for the assumption that there is a minimum number of Yeats allusions required for a piece of writing to be literary. Furthermore, the film’s hollow pretension would not be such a critical issue if the actual Beats hadn’t had legitimately radical ideas, ideas so epoch-changing that, hearing them now, they seem natural if not obvious. But how can we feel revolution when every interaction seems so hackneyed?
It all feels fake: the sets, the earnestness, the musical choices, all flap around like falcons in need of a falconer. The introduction of Michael C. Hall as Carr’s older, now spurned, soon to be murdered lover only brings us farther afield from the actually interesting story. The sad truth is that it is unlikely that anyone would participate in, let alone finance, a first time director’s take on these characters if the film’s subject wasn’t a luridly exceptional incident. An exploration of the work of the New Vision Kill Your Darlings is not, but how could it be? As the specific market share of a given independent film gets smaller and smaller it becomes harder and harder for anyone unproven to strike out on a new, risky, meaningful and fairly expensive path. Dead in every conceivable way, Kill Your Darlings alerts us to the fact that actually trying to look and sound like fierce independence means you’re doing it wrong.